WASHINGTON — The Association of O&C Counties signaled Monday it is unlikely to support Sen. Ron Wyden’s proposal for a new management plan for more than 2 million acres of forest in Western Oregon.
Since Wyden, D-Ore., unveiled his plan last week, the association has been going over the 188-page legislation line by line, said Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, the association’s president. In a statement released Monday, the association indicated “doubt and skepticism” about Wyden’s proposal.
“The disappointment comes from what we measured (in Wyden’s bill) against our three bedrock principles,” which are a dramatic reduction of litigation over timber sales, a steady output of timber and a reasonable level of funding for local governments, Robertson said.
At stake is the future of the 2.4 million acres of Oregon & California Railroad Grant lands — known as the O&C lands — in Western Oregon. Spanning 18 counties, much in a checkerboard pattern, the land was originally intended for development of an interstate railroad but was reclaimed by the federal government.
In 1937, Congress passed legislation requiring the lands to be managed for timber production, with the lion’s share of the proceeds going to county governments.
As timber harvests, particularly on federal lands, decreased in recent years, the timber receipts for O&C counties also dropped, leaving some counties on the verge of bankruptcy.
The O&C lands, which are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and exist only in Oregon, require federal legislation to make any revisions to the management program under which they are logged.
In September, the House of Representatives passed a sweeping forest management bill, which included a section drafted by Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby. Their plan, the O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act, basically protected half the area and placed the rest in a public trust and managed to produce a sustained yield of timber.
Wyden’s plan would also leave roughly half the O&C lands off limits for timbering. It would also create or expand almost 90,000 acres of wilderness as well as extend the wild and scenic designation on various rivers by 165 miles.
The remaining forestry emphasis areas would be managed under the principles of ecological forestry, where harvests attempt to create a healthier, more diverse forest. In harvested areas, loggers would be required to leave at least one-third of the trees standing and old-growth stands in moist forests would be left intact if they were more than 120 years old. Any tree more than 150 years old could never be cut down.
Wyden’s bill also requires the BLM to issue two environmental impact statements — one for wet forests, one for dry — within 18 months of the bill’s enactment. Once finalized, those determinations would be in effect for 10 years at a time, an attempt to limit the legal arguing over designations to once a decade.
Robertson said Monday that Wyden’s bill does not provide certainty that there will be a dramatic reduction of the amount of litigation, appeals and lawsuits over timber sales.
“If you can’t implement (a forest management plan), if you can’t get it out of the court system, it doesn’t matter” what the management regime is, Robertson said.
Wyden also said his proposal would lead to the harvesting of between 300 million and 350 million board feet a year, more than twice the average for the O&C lands over the last 10 years.
“We are not convinced, even under the management proscribed in the bill, that he can get anywhere near to 300 million feet,” Robertson said. The ecological forestry model developed by forestry professors Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson and embraced by Wyden is very expensive and time consuming to implement, Robertson said.
“In the forestry emphasis areas, there are also a lot of areas excluded,” he said. “We really don’t know what landbase we’d be left with to manage.”
The association will release a detailed report of its analysis of Wyden’s bill within a couple weeks, he said. In the meantime, the organization remains a staunch supporter of the House plan developed by Walden, DeFazio and Schrader, in no small part because of the funds it would provide to struggling Oregon counties.
“The level of funding that we’re looking at to be generated out of the trust would probably start somewhere in the area of $60 million (a year), and probably ramp up over time to $90 (million) to $100 million (annually),” he said. “That is very doable.”
According to the BLM’s 2013 budget justification, the O&C lands produced revenues of $17.3 million in 2008, decreasing to $14.3 million in 2011 and a projected $13.9 million in 2013. The O&C counties receive 75 percent of the funds, equating to roughly $9 million in 2013.
By doubling the harvest, Wyden hopes to increase that amount to between $17 million and $19 million a year.